Stepping Back in Time to Dine at the Ancient Roman Table
By Crystal King
As a tourist in Rome today, you can regularly catch glimpses of the ancient past, even beyond the confines of the Roman Forum. Buildings incorporate columns that are several thousand years old, ancient statues grace the courtyards of Renaissance-era palazzos and restaurants are tucked into the below-ground remains of amphitheaters where gladiators once fought.
It’s a bit harder to imagine what daily life was like for the million plus Romans that walked the streets of the city. It was the bustling capital of an Empire, home to people from dozens of countries. Many arrived in the city as slaves, others as traders or diplomats, and still others looking to make a different life than they had in the country. It would be nearly 1800 years before there was another city of its size in the Western world.
The first thing to consider was where all of those people lived. Just like in big cities of today, they lived in apartment buildings, but with one big difference--they were all made of wood. These buildings, called insulae, where often five to six stories high and not always well-made. Fires were common in Rome and particularly virulent fires could destroy hundreds of buildings. This also meant that if you lived in one of these insulae, you weren’t able to cook in your own apartment. Instead, Romans relied on street food from corner shops called popinae where boiled meats and fried food were common fare. The average popina would have a long counter with jars for storing food set into the counters. You could buy wine and snacks such as olives, bread, and honeyed fritters while you indulged in a bit of dice (often illegal but that never stopped anyone) and perhaps let a woman of ill repute lead you off to a nearby brothel.
Wealthy Romans would not be caught dead in a popina; it was only for the plebians, not for anyone with a measure of taste. Instead, for the nobility (who fell into two camps of status, equestrian and the elite patricians), dining was a fairly complex affair. Each home would have its own kitchen with a measure of slaves to prepare and serve the food. Often food such as olives, grapes, apples and sheep were sourced from the noble’s own farms.
Both patricians and equestrians participated in a patron/client system. The wealthy would help and protect “clients” who, in turn, repaid that help in various ways such as voting a particular way on Senate bills. One of the perks of being a client for a wealthy patrician is the chance to be invited to dinner, either as a special guest, or sometimes as what they called a “shadow” or “parasite,” or in other words, a tag-along who sat at the foot of the couches in a lesser spot but expected to flatter their patron and provide witty conversation in payment for their food. It’s where we get the connotation that the word parasite holds today.
Dining at a patrician’s house started in the atrium, where the lararium was. The lararium was a shrine to the household gods and it was customary for guests to stop and offer prayers. Then, they would be whisked away to the triclinium, or dining room. These dining rooms were usually elaborately decorated and some had open ceilings or doors that opened out toward a garden. Before you stepped across the threshold into the triclinium, slaves would wash your feet and hands.
In the triclinium was a three sided couch. Where you ended up on the couch was important, as each space signified your position of respect in relation to your host, who sat in the middle. The couches held nine people, in deference to the nine muses. Diners lay on their left side, propped on their left elbow, keeping the right had free for eating. In the center of the couch was a table, upon which food would be placed.
Diners came equipped with their own napkins and often with their own sachets of spice, used to spice wine in the fashion that they desired. The host would provide spoons with long pointed handles, used to spear food or open shellfish.
Drinking took place after a meal, not usually with the food, and the ancient Romans were very serious about their wine. Often vintages were over a hundred years old. Wine was always watered down and usually clarified with lead or charcoal. Falernian wine was considered to be the finest of wines. The grape that made Falernian wine is thought to be Falenghina, which makes a white wine which can still be found today.
One custom that most of us today would find unusual, and perhaps unsavory, was the practice of throwing leftover food, bones and crusts onto the floor for the ghosts of the household. These ghosts were thought to be from family members whose bodies might have been buried under the floor of the triclinium. To be a slave that had to clean up after a meal, thereby removing the food from the ghosts, was considered incredibly unlucky.
The food itself came in three courses, but always began with some form of egg dish, and always ended with fruit. Food in ancient Rome was not what we would think of as Italian food today. For one, there were no tomatoes or lemons. Garlic was used medicinally but not to flavor food.
What the ancients did use was a fish sauce called garum, still made in Italy (but called colatura) and which is very similar to Thai and Vietnamese fish sauces still used today. Garum was used to flavor everything, even desserts. But since salt was only used to preserve foods, not to salt them, in small quantities, garum was able to provide the salt flavor and add a bit of umami taste to dishes.
The rare herb, silphium (also called laser), was also popular. Unfortunately, it went extinct in the first century and Emperor Nero is rumored to have had the last sprig. Asafoetida powder or resin, common to Middle Eastern cooking, is believed to be the closest approximation to the taste.
One of the ancient world’s most famous gourmands was Marcus Gavius Apicius, a man who was rumored to be one of the wealthiest in Rome and who loved to entertain. It is thought that Apicius was responsible for several different books about cooking, including one on sauces referenced by several ancient chroniclers, but none has been found. However, a cookbook that bears his name has survived and, ultimately, it is Apicius’s most important legacy. The oldest known collection of recipes, it is believed to have been compiled in the third or fourth century, long after Marcus Gavius Apicius lived, though it is likely that some of the recipes were first developed in his kitchen. While Apicius is full of ancient delicacies such as roasted peacock, flamingo tongues, boiled sow vulva, testicles, and other foods we would not commonly eat today, there are many others that are still popular, including tapenade, absinthe, fried dough, and meatballs. There is even a recipe for Roman milk and egg bread that is identical to what we call French toast. And, contrary to popular belief, foie gras was not originally a French delicacy. The dish dates back twenty-five hundred years, and the ancient chronicler Pliny credits Apicius with developing a version using pigs instead of geese by feeding hogs dried figs and giving them an overdose of mulsum (honey wine) before slaughtering them.
Which just goes to prove that hipsters didn’t really invent “foodie” culture. It has existed for centuries, in many forms, but it was the ancient Romans who first made the art of dining truly magnificent.
Crystal King is the author of FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, and the forthcoming THE SECRET CHEF (2019) about Renaissance papal chef, Bartolomeo Scappi. A culinary enthusiast and marketing expert, Crystal’s writing is fueled by a love of history and a passion for the food, language, and culture of Italy. She has taught classes in writing, creativity and social media at several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University, as well as at GrubStreet, one of the leading creative writing centers in the US. She lives in Boston.
To find out more about Crystal and her books… Website.
Feast of Sorrow
FEAST OF SORROW, long-listed for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize, is an imagined retelling of the story of Marcus Gavius Apicius, a wealthy Roman who was a real person that lived in the first century during the time of Caesar August and Tiberius. He was a celebrated gourmand whose name graces the oldest known cookbook. Many of the recipes and techniques in that 2,000+-year-old book still live on today. FEAST OF SORROW is full of food and feasts, love and loss and the glamour and grit of ancient Rome.